Eric Burdon is just the sort of chap you'd want to write a memoir of the rock 'n' roll life. As lead singer of the Animals, he was a key soldier in the British invasion of the '60s, he was present at several key junctures in pop history, and he somehow remembers them despite a 40-year binge on drugs and alcohol.
Here's another reason: He's alive. It's absurdly obvious, but it stands out in increasing relief as Burdon ticks off story after story of famous pals who didn't survive: Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, and Steve McQueen.
Burdon says he knew each of them well, and he has the anecdotes to back it up: On the morning in 1970 that Hendrix never woke up, for example, girlfriend Monika Danneman telephoned Burdon when she couldn't rouse the guitar great. In one of the best passages in the book, Burdon offers a new explanation for how Hendrix died.
At the time, Danneman claimed that she and Hendrix were engaged, a contention that others in their circle never accepted. Burdon has come to see her as an unstable sex-but-not-love interest of Hendrix's who couldn't bear the news that Hendrix was leaving. So she spiked his tuna fish with her sedatives, not to kill him but with the hope that she could delay his departure.
There's no way to prove any of it, of course: Hendrix is gone and so is Danneman, who committed suicide in 1996. But enough doubt about the circumstances existed that Scotland Yard reopened the case in 1993. It's all history, anyway, giving a subtle lesson in the value of survival: Because he still breathes, Burdon gets to add to the historical record.
In fact, death sets Burdon free to tell his tales.
He couldn't, for example, have called Danneman a stalker in 1987, in his first autobiography; she could have sued.
Unfortunately, some of Burdon's best stuff is balanced by embarrassing little crumpets like this, in which he reveals his ties to a famous Beat writer: "William S. Burroughs lived in the apartment next door to me in London. I never saw him, but I'd notice when he picked up his mail, and I could hear him shuffling around inside."
And it's not an aberration, this fame-by-real-estate: "[My flat] was right above the Indica Gallery, Ham Yard, St. James. This was Yoko Ono's place of business, into which strolled one day the ever-inquisitive John Lennon. He came looking for something to hang on his wall and left in love for the rest of his life."
Even worse is Burdon's suggestion that Pete Townshend got the idea to smash guitars from the night Burdon was playing at the Scene Club, whose house band was the forerunner of The Who.
Burdon destroyed a white piano that was taking up too much space onstage. "Pete Townshend was probably in the crowd that night, and I've always believed that the crowd's reaction to my piano stomp gave him the idea. . . . " Yeah, probably.
It's more than silliness; such questionable comments undercut the rest. So when, for example, he claims he's the Egg Man of the Beatles song "I Am the Walrus," it seems like more of the same. But this time, he relates a ribald tale that at least makes the claim plausible.
Debauchery is a thread that weaves through Burdon's life; evil and greed are two others, hallmarks of music's business side, Burdon says. He and most members of the band receive no royalties from Burdon's greatest hit, "House of the Rising Sun." They'd been advised that only one name could go on the label, and Alan Price was the lucky man who was tapped. Burdon says Price never shared, and the two never speak.
Burdon returns repeatedly to how bitter he is that others have taken what should have been his, but "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," a title Burdon borrows from his 1965 hit single, is largely a sunny-side account. It meanders some, and several chapters could have been left out, but at the base are Burdon's tales:
* McQueen, after he was diagnosed with cancer, once took a plane out with a suicide-dive flight plan but had second thoughts aloft.
* In a drunken moment, Burdon tore one of his gold records from its frame to give it a spin, only to learn they'd plated a platter by Connie Francis.
* Burdon once went into a bar and sang a karaoke version of one of his own songs. (The bartender thought he did OK.)
After better than four decades at it, Eric Burdon obviously knows a thing or two about entertaining.